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OUTrageous events aren't your grandma's bingo

| Sunday, March 30, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Anyone who thinks bingo is a drag would find OUTrageous Bingo a real game changer.

At a time when traditional venues are struggling, this monthly event sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Community Center at Rodef Shalom in Oakland is drawing capacity crowds. About 500 enthusiasts in a mixture of ages, genders and sexual orientations came on a recent Saturday night, as much for the entertainment as the chance to win prizes and cash.

“Most bingos are pretty mundane,” says Ed Lewis of the North Hills. “This one isn't. There's an excitement factor here you're not going to find in a church basement.”

Lewis heard about OUTrageous Bingo from his friend David Seskey of McCandless, the synagogue's building supervisor and a father of two who sometimes comes with his wife.

“You're getting good entertainment for what you're paying,” Seskey says. “If (Rodef) had more space to rent, they'd do it. That's how popular this is.”

For $18 at the door, or $16 in advance, participants receive 12 bingo cards, the chance to play special games at $1 apiece, and more than two hours of sometimes raucous fun, including an intermission featuring drag queens such as Miss Rose Amore and Jezebel, who dance and lip-sync through the crowd.

They and caller Rick Allison are what make the event such a big draw, says Maureen Callas of Green Tree, who comes with her husband and kids. Daughter Mariah chose the venue for her 18 th birthday celebration, Feb. 15.

“We don't do traditional bingo,” says Maureen Callas. “This is so much more fun.”

Bernie Lukacs of Elliott has been an OUTrageous regular almost from its start 16 years ago at another location to raise money for the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force. Today, the event helps fund Shepherd Wellness Center in Bloomfield and GLCC programs. Various nonprofits are supported each month.

“I'll go to a church bingo once in a while, but they're so serious compared to this,” says Lukacs, who decorates his table and himself in a different theme every month. In February, he wore dangling heart-shaped earrings and set up a teddy-bear display that included a photo of himself and his late partner, another OUTrageous devotee.

“We ain't your grandma's bingo,” agrees Allison. “People come here to socialize. They celebrate birthdays and bachelorette parties. They come in holiday costumes. It's a safe and open environment. You can bring your family — your Aunt Gertrude and your kids — because we're never too foul-mouthed or perverse. We're just on the edge.”

Allison sets the tone for the evening by asking single folks to stand:

“This isn't clothing-optional,” he jokes, “unless I ask you — and I've already seen a few people I'd like to ask. If you're female, forget it. It won't be you. I like men!”

“So do I,” a woman banters from the audience. “But the reason we're all single is you've taken all the men!”

Soon, Allison gets everyone on his feet.

“I want you to stand and take the pledge,” he says, as players wave their daubers overhead. “Repeat after me, ‘I promise to remember that this is only a stupid game and we're here to have fun.' Now sit down, shut up, and play bingo.”

OUTrageous is helping to revive a game that was copyrighted in Pittsburgh nearly a century ago and became a staple of fire halls and church basements until recent years when other gambling venues became more popular.

“The casino's killed us,” says Ted Hale, chairman of the Library Volunteer Fire Co. “People would rather play slots.”

The bingo he first organized in 1957 is still held, but not so much as a fundraiser, he says. “We do it to give the old folks a night out,” he says. “Now, we're just breaking even.”

And they're not alone, according to Penn Distributing in Homewood, a wholesaler of bingo cards and daubers.

“We're servicing 40 percent fewer accounts than five years ago,” says sales associate Dan Shefler, who blames the advent of casinos and a ban on smoking in facilities like fire halls.

“The economy has had an effect on bingo, but the main, main reason there's been a downturn is that young people aren't interested. They're more inclined to gamble at casinos. And you can smoke in casinos.”

The more successful bingos, he says, are those that also offer raffles and other games of chance.

Todd Long of the Undercliff Volunteer Fire Department in Shaler says his company's 60-year-old program struggled for years, too, but now is enjoying a renaissance.

“The casinos killed us, but that effect has worn off,” he says. “We also revamped our bingo program. We were having trouble getting people on Thursdays, so we shut down for a while and moved to Friday nights. Now, we're getting a decent crowd.”

There's no alcohol, but players can buy a hot dinner for about $7, which is another draw, he says. “Some people are looking for an alternative to the bar scene.”

Long knows other fire companies are struggling. “I think it's a territorial thing,” he says. “The smaller bingos have closed, but the larger ones have weathered the changes.”

Blazing Bingo, which benefits the Braddock Volunteer Fire Department, is popular enough to draw crowds on both Thursday and Sunday nights, when folks can play from paper or computerized cards. Some play with both, hoping to increase their odds of winning.

Chris Bryan of the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh thinks Pittsburgh is a big bingo town, based on the turn-out at monthly events sponsored by her organization, a nonprofit that benefits the local lesbian, gay and transgender communities.

Held jointly with other nonprofits at Pittsburgh Opera in the Strip, XTreme Bingo is more than a game, which might explain its success, Bryan says. “We have major food and a full cash bar. Sometimes, we have drag queens. One month, we had two amazing opera singers.

“It's more than bingo,” she says. “It's really a night out.”

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